Among the small bunch of billionaires that the local biotech industry has created, Tim Springer may be the only one who regularly rides his bike to work in the Longwood Medical Area, where his ID tag identifies him simply as a “staff scientist.”
Springer, a 74-year-old professor at Harvard Medical School and a research lab chief at Boston Children’s Hospital, is a heads-down scientist and entrepreneur with some notable quirks. He once commissioned a modern dance piece to explain the behavior of a kind of protein he studies called an integrin. He has shipped many tons of nature-sculpted “scholar rocks,” or gongshi, from China to his home in Newton, where they are displayed in his backyard. He says that during his freshman year at Yale in the mid-1960s, he rebelled against the requirement to wear a tie by putting one on over a T-shirt.
He’s also been a driving force behind some of the biggest companies in Boston biotech for the past 30 years.
“Tim is a weird-science guy,” says Derrick Rossi, a biotech entrepreneur and retired Harvard Medical School professor. “His passion is in the mechanics of biology.”
Rossi doesn’t mean “weird” in a bad way — just that Springer is driven by the desire to fill in the vast gaps in our knowledge of how our cells function, in health and in disease. And Rossi says he is grateful that when he pitched Springer on his own research into the potential uses of modified messenger RNA, back in 2010 when the two were colleagues at Harvard, Springer set in motion a series of events that created the company Moderna — and committed to being its first investor. Due largely to Moderna’s success, Forbes estimates that Springer’s net worth is north of $2 billion.
Springer has been a founder or investor in about a half-dozen other biotech companies, including LeukoSite, which went public and was acquired in 1999 for $635 million, Selecta Biosciences, Morphic Therapeutic, and a publicly traded Cambridge company called Scholar Rock, after Springer’s favorite collectable object. (It is working on drugs to treat a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which typically emerges in early childhood.)
Drugs already on the market that Springer has had a hand in treat diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease and colitis. One drug for inflammation of the gut, Entyvio, generates more than $4 billion in sales a year for its parent company, Takeda — the Japanese company’s single biggest product.
“Tim is a special breed of person who understands how you can be successful in a commercial setting, and also fulfill your potential as an academic researcher and a teacher,” says Terry McGuire, a venture capitalist whose Boston firm, Polaris Partners, has put money into several of Springer’s startups. “When he calls, the answer is, ‘Yes. What is it that you want to do?’ ”
Springer, a native of Sacramento, has been connected to Harvard since the early 1970s, when he arrived to earn a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology; by 1977, he was an assistant professor. Springer’s study of the way the immune system can at times overreact — involving those proteins called integrins — led him to launch his first startup, LeukoSite, in 1992. To demonstrate how these integrins behaved inside the walls of blood vessels, Springer had a kids’ sticky “splat” ball that he would toss onto a wall, and let it slowly roll down.
“One of the guys I was pitching for funding said, ‘This guy is so crazy, we’ve got to fund this company,’ ” Springer recalls. The company began to develop drugs that could block the immune system’s overactivity in diseases like Crohn’s, where inflammation disrupts the normal activity of the gastrointestinal tract. The resulting drug, Entyvio, is delivered to patients intravenously about six times a year. A newer Springer startup, Morphic, is working to develop a pill version.
LeukoSite’s sale to Millennium Pharmaceuticals — a big deal in Boston biotech history — put about $100 million into Springer’s bank account, and gave him the ability to invest in both his own and other people’s startups. His approach for his own ventures is to put up half the funding and get a venture capital firm — these days, often Polaris — to provide the other half.
“What I am good at is recognizing good technology,” Springer says. “There are lots of companies started on technology that is hyped up, and doesn’t hold up.”
Rossi recalls his first significant conversation with Springer, in 2010. Springer, who was far more senior, had missed a lunchtime talk that Rossi had given about his experiments with modifying messenger RNA so that it could be delivered into cells, but someone suggested he show his presentation to Springer. So they met up.
“Tim was being very aggressive about challenging me on this and that with the science,” Rossi says. “It was almost bordering on hostile.” But at the end of the meeting, Springer said that the potential of the work was “really tremendous,” Rossi recalls, and he offered to invest in any company that Rossi decided to start. “He became the first believer willing to put up money to invest in this company that later became Moderna,” Rossi says.
Several venture capital firms turned down the opportunity to invest in Rossi’s startup. But Springer helped make introductions that eventually got the attention of Flagship Pioneering, a Cambridge firm. Springer suggested his usual approach: Let’s each put up half the money that the company will need. Flagship wanted more control and eventually took the larger slice of a two-thirds, one-third split. Springer also connected MIT professor Bob Langer, a specialist in new ways to deliver drugs into the body, to the new venture.
Moderna became world famous during the COVID pandemic, and the surge in its stock price rendered Springer, Langer, and Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of Flagship, all billionaires.
Now, Springer and Rossi both say they feel written out of Moderna’s history, with Afeyan and Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel getting most of the credit and media attention for building a company that today has a $65 billion market capitalization and which shipped more than 800 million doses of its COVID vaccine last year. (Afeyan and Bancel didn’t respond to e-mailed requests for comment.)
“There were some clashes, but in hindsight it’s all fine,” says Springer, who initially served on Moderna’s board but had departed by the time the company went public in 2018. Notably, though, since that time he hasn’t chosen to work with Flagship again.
Springer is ruthlessly efficient with his time. When he was interviewing Praveen Tipirneni as a potential chief executive for Morphic, he scheduled Tipirneni for a 15-minute meeting in his office. (Things went well, and it ultimately lasted for 90 minutes.)
Now chief executive of Morphic, which went public in 2019, Tipirneni says that Springer, as a founder and board member, “is this really interesting combination of cheerleader, teacher, confessor, judge, jury — and at times, executioner if need be.” Tipirneni says Springer doesn’t micromanage a startup, but that “many people have faced his strong opinions. He does not suffer fools.”
As his net worth has ascended, Springer has not thrown money into the typical toys or status symbols.
He rides a bike or the Green Line to work daily; when he needs to drive, he hops in his Toyota minivan. He owns a second house on Cape Cod, where he is on the board of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. When he was about to be honored with an award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2004, Springer “decided to celebrate by making a piece of art.” So he wrote a script and commissioned a modern dance troupe to create a dance that would bring his research to life, titled, “Turning on Integrins.” He has donated $30 million to create the Institute for Protein Innovation, a new research center at Harvard Medical School that is working to create an open-source library of antibodies that may be able to target a wide range of diseases.
Springer’s greatest extravagance may be his collection of gongshi, which he became fascinated with after attending an art auction in New York. When he was working to design his home in Newton, he went to China on a buying spree; over time, he sent seven shipping containers back to the United States, all filled with rocks. “One was 23 tons,” Springer says. He likes the fact that scholars, not soldiers or politicians, were seen as leaders in Chinese society. The rocks sit alongside a collection of trees including a cedar of Lebanon and a rare Euonymus tree.
Springer is working in collaboration with Polaris on yet another biotech startup — one which is still in stealth mode, he says. The focus, he says, is on quashing the immune system’s sometimes overzealous response to protein-based drugs.
“There’s a case to be made that what he’s doing going forward may dwarf what he has done in the past — he’s in a real peak productive mode,” says Tipirneni.
Springer is married to Chafen Lu, a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School and onetime researcher in his lab. He has five children, three from his first marriage. Springer says that Lu doesn’t think he will ever retire.
“As long as I’m having fun, and I can work with bright people,” he says, “it’s very energizing to me.”
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.